Is reversible stunning really reversible?
By Mohammad Abdullah
Recently, more Muslim-majority countries have been issuing fatwas that approve stunning methods to produce halal meat. But according to HuffPost, countless chickens likely experience intense suffering during such processes. Research shows that the method used by U.S. poultry processors — moving them through a vat of electrified water — doesn’t consistently render birds insensible before slaughter. Moreover, chickens and turkeys are often unintentionally boiled alive because fast-moving lines fail to kill them before dropping them into scalding water (Nico Pitney, Oct. 28, 2016, www.huffpost.com).
Muslim religious authorities often allow reversible stunning, believing that it enables stunned — but still living — animals to return to their normal life if they aren’t slaughtered. Consumers, however, wonder that if a stunning method doesn’t consistently render birds insensible before slaughter, how can they be sure that a reversible one wouldn’t result in some dead animals before they are slaughtered. Thus, is reversible stunning really reversible?
Another concern is the use of Controlled Atmosphere Stunning (CAS), which exposes birds to an [oxygen-free] anoxic gas mixture. According to a report, although most birds slaughtered in the U.K. are stunned using electrified water, an increasing number of establishments are using CAS systems. In fact, birds are checked to ensure that they’re dead before being shackled (Humane Slaughter Association, www.has.org.uk, June 2005).
From the halal perspective, pre-slaughter stunning mustn’t kill the animals because God forbids consuming maytah, the meat of an animal that dies before being properly slaughtered or hunted (5:3).
The Humane Slaughter Act
The Humane Slaughter Act requires the proper treatment and humane handling of food animals slaughtered in state or federally inspected slaughter establishments. It requires that animals should be stunned to render them unconscious prior to their slaughter to mitigate pain.
Stunning can be defined as a technical method of making animals immobile or unconscious, with or without killing them, during or at the beginning of the slaughtering process so that slaughtering thereafter causes them no pain (Nakyinsige et al., www.sciencedirect.com, October 2013).
In Europe, stunning animals prior to slaughter is a statutory requirement. The European Union Council Regulations defines “stunning” as any intentionally induced process that causes loss of consciousness and sensibility without pain, including any process resulting in instantaneous death.
In the U.S. and elsewhere, this act exempts all kosher- and halal-slaughtered animals, whereby they are rendered unconscious by anemia of the brain caused by a sharp instrument severing the carotid arteries and jugular veins simultaneously and instantaneously.
Despite attempts to harmonize halal certification regulations (Islamic Horizons, January/February 2022), only a few governments may have some input in establishing such standards and may have uniform slaughter standards. The multiplicity of halal standards has created confusion in Western countries that would like to certify their products to export them to Islamic countries. This lack of uniform standards has led global corporations to take advantage of the ensuing confusion.
Wael Hallaq states, “Globalization is a regulatory force that global institutions rely upon for further expansion of markets, both within its borders and outside them. There is no question that the balance of power has shifted and continues to shift in favor of the global market and away from the State (“The Impossible State,” Columbia University Press, 2012, 142).
Globalization’s impacts on the halal meat industry are becoming evident, and the industry has been slowly adopting the ways of the larger conventional meat industry, including one of its most controversial aspects: stunning/killing animals prior to their slaughter.
The Halal Perspective
During the times of Prophet Moses (‘alayhi as salam) and Prophet Muhammad (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), local butchers slaughtered locally raised animals by cutting their throats, without stunning and in a manner that resulted in their quick deaths due to rapid and complete bleeding.
Today, the meat business, including the halal meat business, is no longer localized. Just as livestock farming has been shifting from traditional animal farming to factory farming, slaughterhouses have been using various stunning methods and techniques to render animals insensitive to pain prior to their slaughter and to immobilize them so that fast-moving slaughter lines can run without interruption.
The U.S., Europe and other countries have identified three basic types of stunning as humane: captive bolt (penetrating and non-penetrating), electrical and CO2 (carbon dioxide) gas anesthesia.
As there are almost 2 billion Muslims, knowing the methods of acceptable stunning is important. According to www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8633638,
• “A stunning method can be reversible or irreversible. For example, electrical stunning can be reversible or irreversible by inducing heart failure depending on the time and frequency of the current passing through the brain of an animal” (Grandin, 2010).
• “When head-only electric stunning is applied correctly, it makes the animal unconscious and the animal can completely recover back to its normal state if the exsanguination cut is not done. For that reason, head-only electric stunning is considered Halal by many Muslims (Farouk, 2013).
• “The nonpenetrating captive bolt gun stunning, requires more work but once done right fulfills the criteria according to many authorities for Halal stunning” (Oliveria et al., 2018).
• “After the electrified water stunning, some birds with low resistance may receive more current than required and are more likely to die prior to exsanguination and hence it is questionable if this is compatible with Halal meat production requirements” (Fuseini et al., 2018).
• “Electrified water stunning of poultry continues to be a concern because of the difficulty of assuring the absence of animal death, especially in cases when there is a time-lapse between stunning and slaughtering. The authors also suggested avoiding captive bolt stunning for halal meat slaughter” (Riaz et al., 2021).
• “Birds stunned using gas cannot recover consciousness and are killed by suffocation, which does not meet Halal and kosher requirements” (Raj et al., 1994).
• “Sometimes animal can be killed using higher concentrations of carbon dioxide” (Llonch et al., 2012).
• “By using electrical head-only stunning for sheep and cattle, by maintaining the current, and checking each animal after stunning if it has been done right or not, the concern can be minimized. This can be evaluated by checking if animal is still breathing, any vocalization, and remaining eye reflexes” (Rao et al., 2013).
• “In research studies, this is possible to control, but it is not as easy to assure that this is the case in an actual slaughterhouse where the animals are of different sizes and compositions (e.g., lean/fat ratios) along with different amounts of outer coverings, e.g., hair/wool, that varies in thickness and dryness” (Anil, 2012; Grandin, 2020b).
Colorado State University’s Temple Grandin states since not all plant personnel can become electrical engineers, as an auditor she looks for clinical signs that the stunner is actually creating an epileptic seizure with a tonic (rigid) phase and clonic (kicking paddling) phase.
These findings reveal that it’s difficult to be sure if a stunning method, reversible or non-reversible, works consistently and effectively all the time and under all conditions, or to find out if a pre-slaughter animal is dead. It makes the certification bodies’ job more important.
Differences in Scholarly Opinion
Kosher and halal slaughter methods have been practiced for centuries. Historically, Jews have opposed stunning and forbid pre-slaughter stunning under all circumstances. Muslim scholars, on the other hand, have issued fatwas that approve of pre-slaughter stunning. An estimated 84% of poultry, 75% of cattle and 63% of sheep and goats are now stunned.
Muslim demand for halal products has increased in recent years. According to a 2016 survey, 96% of Muslim travelers considered halal food to be critical, 85% rated halal food at the facility around them as important and 81% rated having no alcoholic drinks at restaurants /food outlets as important.
Muslims differ over the acceptability of pre-slaughter stunning practices. For example, Malaysia accepts it, whereas other countries may not. One of the most important requirements for halal slaughtering is that a live animal be slaughtered. Whether this is in fact the case has become a source of debate in Muslim communities. However, it appears that reversible stunning is generally accepted. But does describing mean it as “reversible” that it is always and everywhere true?
Reportedly, some halal certification organizations specifying the requirements for stunning generally accept reversible stunning only when there’s a procedure to check/detect dead animals. However, questions remain about the procedure’s accuracy when used in slaughterhouses (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8633638).
Muslim consumers nowadays are more knowledgeable and concerned about the halal food they consume. A company with an effective procedure should place a statement somewhere — on the halal meat or poultry product packages along with the halal certification organization’s logo — that these animals were “reversibly stunned.” Doing so would help solve this controversy.
Ensuring that only live animals are slaughtered is a serious matter because God commands it. Although it may appear that only a few Muslims pay any attention to this issue, it’s on every Sharia-compliant Muslim’s mind. Hopefully, existing halal certification organizations won’t look the other way.
Mohammad Abdullah, DVM, MS (Ag Technology), MPH, retired as deputy district manager at USDA-FSIS, the federal agency that regulates the meat industry. He is author of “A Closer Look at Halal Meat: From Farm to Fork.”
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